A semiotics of comedy

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Marianna Keisalo. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.2.010

A semiotics of comedy

Moving figures and shifting grounds of Chapayeka ritual clown performance

Marianna KEISALO, Aarhus University

This article develops an analytic approach to comedic performance by examining the performance of the Chapayeka ritual clowns as a series of semiotic shifts and reversals: the Chapayekas play with images and contexts, introducing unpredictable figures to effectively shift the grounding conditions of their own performance. The Chapayeka performance combines both conventional and set forms as well as improvised and newly invented ones. As they shift from convention to invention (in the sense of Roy Wagner), the Chapayekas emerge as “symbols that stand for themselves.” This capacity allows the Chapayekas to function as both symbolic figures in the ritual and self-contained contextual grounds, which enables them to produce further signs and manipulate figure-ground relations within and beyond the ritual. The analytic view developed here is informed by the complex and multilayered semiotics of comedic performance; this exploration offers a novel perspective on how comedic performances create and wield semiotic force through establishing grounds and evoking figure-ground relations.

Keywords: Yaqui, Chapayekas, ritual clowning, humor, performance, semiotics

This article develops an analytic approach to comedy as a particularly complex and multilayered form of semiosis very resistant to reductive analyses. Using three examples I will demonstrate some dynamics of semiosis in the performance of the Chapayekas, masked ritual clowns representing Judas and the Roman soldiers in the Easter ritual of the Yaquis, an indigenous group in Sonora, Mexico.1 The Chapayeka performance constitutes and is constituted by a series of semiotic shifts and reversals: the clowns play with images, introducing unpredictable, often [102]incongruous figures, which becomes a way to effectively shift the grounding conditions of their own performance. I argue that shifting between convention—the set, repeated forms of the ritual—and invention—new, improvised, or otherwise unpredictable action—is what sets the Chapayekas apart from the other performers in the Yaqui Easter ritual and gives them unique semiotic force within the dynamics of the ritual (see also Keisalo-Galvan 2011; Wagner 1981). As the Chapayekas shift from convention to invention, they emerge as “symbols that stand for themselves” (Wagner 1981, 1986). I will show how this capacity allows the Chapayekas to function as self-contained grounds, able to produce further figures and manipulate figure-ground relations. This perspective, I suggest, offers a new perspective on the often-noted duality and ambiguity of clowns and makes a contribution to semiotic anthropology more broadly.

The concept of clown, ritual or otherwise, is not straightforward or unproblematic: a great variety of characters have been placed within the category, and the distinction to less comedic but otherwise ambiguous, chaotic, or (self)contradictory beings is not always clear (see also Handelman 1990). In the case of the Chapayekas, there is a wide variety even within this group of performers: some Chapayekas are playful and quite intentionally very funny,2 while others’ performances are more straightforward, aloof, or even frightening. However, the main feature that sets the Chapayekas apart and gives them special force in the ritual’s dynamics is their potential to shift between invention and convention in such a way as to draw attention to and manipulate figure-ground relations—which I suggest is at the heart of comedic performance. In comparison, while more “serious” or straightforward forms of semiosis also proceed through figure-ground reversals as things make sense in relation to each other, the reversals happen more seamlessly (see also Wagner 1981, 1986, 2001). Of course, comedy and humor are themselves slippery categories, dependent on subjective perspectives and open to multiple intentions and interpretations. “Comedic” and “serious” are not always clearly distinguishable. My approach focuses on performances that are intended to be comedic in their ethnographic context and explores them as semiotic techniques—as actions that embody certain positions, orientations, and intentions in relation to semiotic ideologies: “sign users’ reflexive sensibilities about the definition, value, and effects of different semiotic systems they use” (Stasch 2011: 168; see also Keane 2007; Robbins 2001, 2012). I take semiotic ideologies to be changing, contested, not necessarily mapping neatly onto semiotic systems. For example, while using language implies a semiotic ideology, it is not necessarily the same for different users of the same language in different situations. In this sense, my aim is not to describe “Yaqui semiotic ideology” as a whole but to point to certain specific ideas and practices that systematically inform the Easter ritual.[103]

My approach can offer insights on a range of more or less comedic, contradictory, ironic, or ambiguous performances and figures.3 My analysis complements previous anthropological analyses of clowning in ritual (e.g., Babcock 1984; Bricker 1973; Brightman 1999; Course 2013; Crumrine 1969; Handelman 1990; Hieb 1972; King 1977; Makarius 1970; Mitchell 1992; Parsons and Beals 1934; Steward [1929] 1991; Tedlock 1975).4 I will note some of the differences of approach, although a full exploration of the literature is beyond the scope of this article (see also Keisalo-Galvan 2011). I am more interested in how clowns and clowning mean and do things rather than what they mean and do (cf. Course 2013; Sykes 2003). While some texts go further in asking how and why clowns have power in their particular contexts (e.g., Handelman 1990; Tedlock 1975), most previous analyses of clowning focus on the what rather than the how, and analyses of the clowns’ efficacy tend to focus on the end result, often in terms of the “mundane order,” rather than considering the part of the clown in its performance context (Handelman 1990: 237). Julian Steward ([1929] 1991) wrote the first anthropological general look at ritual clowning in North America, showing how widespread the phenomenon is. While there is a great deal of variation between the clowns of different groups, Steward finds there are four recurring traits widely shared by clowns: 1) duality, 2) a relation to otherness, 3) exaggerated bodily desires, and 4) poverty. Magnus Course (2013) advocates for looking at these traits together and finds them all to apply to Mapuche clowns. In the case of the Chapayekas, only the first two apply. The Chapayekas are somewhat of an exception among clowns in that all reference to sexuality is removed. They occasionally pretend to consume food and drink, but greed or gluttony is not particularly emphasized. The idea of poverty does not apply to the performers, whose social status outside the ritual varies, or the beings portrayed in the masks, which include figures like “president of the United States.”

I will discuss analyses related more directly to the Chapayekas and their relation to otherness further below. Dualism is a central trait of clowning and humor (also related to ambiguity and incongruity, and the “double framing” of humor and play as discussed by Gregory Bateson [1976]) and offers a way to compare different analytical approaches. The duality of clowns has been cast in different ways: as a combination of the funny and playful and more sinister or serious aspects (e.g., Handelman 1990; Hieb 1972; King 1977) or functional and subversive, in that some actions of clowning sustain convention while others undermine it (e.g., Brightman 1999). While I also start from a dualistic viewpoint, I suggest that a focus on convention and invention and the relation between these offers a more viable template for looking at comedic performances than categories predefined by meaning. While the Chapayekas certainly show similar dualities as described in earlier studies, their ambiguity makes a detailed separation of these traits impossible. I have not found that invention/convention correlates with the playful/serious or subversive/functional aspects of clowning, as I hope will become clear [104]in the examples I present here. Furthermore, while the interpretations that focus on what the clowning means are often plausible enough, they present certain classic problems. Does everyone involved agree with this interpretation? If not, why privilege this interpretation? Are all participants aware of it, are there alternative interpretations? If everyone is not aware or in agreement, then how does the performance have meaning or efficacy for them? In the (unlikely) case that the interpretations—rather than the forms of performance—are known and agreed upon, what about changing forms and contexts? How do these affect the interpretation? Thus, in addition to offering possible interpretations of Chapayeka performances, the examples and analysis provided here aim to consider “why such ludic behavior is so frequently central to ritual . . . to explore its ritual potency” (Course 2013: 780).

The Yaqui Easter ritual

My discussion has relevance for the argument that ritual or other performance should be considered “in its own right,” rather than as a reflection of social contexts thought to be more fundamental (Handelman and Lindqvist 2004). This view advocates an approach that begins with and looks to the logics of the event itself for theoretical views rather than seeing the relation of ritual to other aspects of culture and society as a matter of a priori theory: “what particular rituals are about, what they are organized to do, how they accomplish what they do, are all empirical questions whose primary locus of inquiry is initially within the rituals themselves” (Handelman 2004: 3; see also Kapferer 2004). Ritual does not, of course, exist independently of its context, but it is capable of having a somewhat autonomous existence. The ritual itself and the actions it permits determine the degree of autonomy. (Handelman 2004: 3). This approach seems all the more appropriate in the case of the Yaqui Easter ritual, as the highly structured ritual relates to other spheres of social life in a very flexible way.

Today, many Yaquis live and work in different parts of Mexico and the United States and return to the Yaqui communities only for a few weeks each year during the Easter ritual, arguably the most important event of the year in terms of attention and participation. The pattern of traveling for work goes back to colonial times, and at the more turbulent points in the history of the Yaquis, when communities, families, and individuals were scattered, rituals were held when and where possible (see Spicer 1980; Silverio and Leon 2000; Moctezuma Zamarrón 2007). Participation is mediated by ceremonial societies, and while there are restrictions of age and gender, membership in certain societies is not reflected in specific social roles. All participation in ritual is seen as the performance of ritual labor (luturia), good in itself. Many performers are members of several societies, either at the same time or over the course of their lifetime. Additionally, even though a person may have made a manda, a sacred vow to perform, for a specific part, this may be changed for another if is more convenient for whatever reason—in the end, it is the ritual labor that counts. Thus, performing specifically as a Chapayeka, or wearing a particular type of Chapayeka mask has little meaning for the social standing of the performer outside of ritual, especially as the time of ritual may be the only time he spends in [105]the community.5 Furthermore, there is an ideal of the Chapayeka performers being anonymous, although their identities are usually known. In contrast to this flexibility, the ritual forms show a remarkable stability over time and distance within the existing ethnographic record,6 regardless of the vast social and historical changes over the decades. The only thing that changes is the Chapayekas—and I think this built-in change is key to why the rest of the ritual shows such stability (for a fuller discussion on this and the part of the clowning in context of the ritual see Keisalo-Galvan 2011).

After centuries of conflict, the Yaqui territory in Sonora was declared an autonomous area in 1937. The struggle for the recognition of rights is not over. An ongoing issue is water, and the threat caused by plans to dam the Yaqui River. The area is by no means isolated, the ties of communities within the territory to each other and to other towns and cities are numerous and varied, kept up through different ways, including social media. The nearest city, Ciudad Obregón, is within an hour’s drive from many of the Yaqui towns in Sonora and reachable by bus. People I met during my fieldwork were studying and working in a variety of fields, from construction work to information technology. However, despite a plurality of life-ways, “being Yaqui” is important politically, socially, and emotionally, and the ritual tradition is considered an important part of the effort to maintain identity and culture, along with the land, language, and shared history (Erickson 2008; Keisalo-Galvan 2011; Moctezuma Zamarrón 2007). While on the surface there may be little to distinguish the lifestyles of the Yaquis from others living in the same villages, Easter is a specific time to do Yaqui things: wearing Yaqui clothing, eating Yaqui foods, and immersing oneself in the ritual. A full discussion of the ritual as a semiotic system—how it recreates cosmological powers and principles and relates to social and historical contexts—is beyond the scope of this article; the aim here is to focus on the Chapayekas’ performance as potential ways to engage with these contexts in all their variety and mediate their boundaries.

This article also engages discussions of the aesthetics and poetics of performance and the “semiotics of efficacy” (Stasch 2011, see also Kapferer and Hobart 2005). I aim to contribute to the question of how realms of action are coconstitutive: the “world-making” properties of performance (Stasch 2011: 160, 163). The field of semiotic anthropology covers a variety of approaches, some deriving from the semiotics of C. S. Peirce, others from structuralist views developed by Ferdinand Saussure and Claude Lévi-Strauss, and symbolic anthropology like that of Clifford Geertz, Victor Turner, or Roy Wagner (Mertz 2007; Parmentier 1994). The semiotics of ritual have been looked at by a number of anthropologists (e.g., Keane 2007; Parmentier 1994; Rappaport 1999; Robbins 2001; Stasch 2011). Although I draw extensively on Wagner, my aim is to build on various approaches and to prioritize ethnography to guide the theoretical; the ways comedic performances resist reductive analyses can effectively reveal weaknesses of analytical models.[106]

I start from the position that the human condition is fundamentally semiotic. While this may be a familiar and in many ways established idea, how semiosis works more specifically is subject to debate, starting with the question of what counts as a sign. In many views, signs are taken as a special class of things in the world, either essentially (like words in a language, or works of art), or by being framed as such through an expressive or interpretative act (like a specific person becoming a symbol of certain values, a finger used to point at something, or “found art”). Signs are defined by having the ability to recall, point to, or stand for something else. In this framework, the analysis proceeds by identifying the relevant sign(s) and then exploring what they are linked to and how. However, the abundance of contradictory and ambiguous signs of comedic figures and performances has confounded analysis many times. Comedic figures and performances point in different directions at the same time, and are also prone to sudden shifts and changes of attitude, focus, even form. The idea that Chapayekas represent Judas and the Roman soldiers is clear enough. But what to make of a Chapayeka whose mask depicts Homer Simpson? That the Chapayekas are searching for Jesus and thus following and spying on the procession of the ceremonial society called the church group—this is also comprehensible. But how to make sense of their action when they bring along a large squeaking plastic spider to play with?

The Chapayekas and other ceremonial societies

Catholicism and the Passion Play depicting the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus were first introduced to the Yaquis by Jesuit missionaries in the early seventeenth century, and subsequently reinvented in terms of a Yaqui framework. Different ceremonial groups, organized as armies in battle, represent different beings and powers. The main opposition is between the Fariseos—the Pharisees—and the church group, representing the Christian powers of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. All the figures are very active: Mary has her own army, the Matachines; Pontius Pilate, instead of washing his hands, is the one to deliver the final strike that kills Jesus; and instead of a Judas who goes off quietly to hang himself, by Holy Week there can be fifty or sixty Chapayekas. The Chapayekas are part of the Fariseos, whose aim is to capture and kill Jesus. The Chapayekas go through a cycle of death and rebirth that is a symmetrical inversion of the cycle of Jesus: the rebirth of the Chapayeka on Ash Wednesday sets off the events that lead to the crucifixion, and the resurrection of Jesus leads to the destruction of the Chapayekas, banishing them until the following year. In addition to the Chapayekas, the Fariseos include at least one Pontius Pilate, other Roman soldiers, officers, and Cabos (“corporals”), lower-ranking foot soldiers of the Fariseo group. Some of the Cabos are very young, barely school-aged. Some of them might have been promised to perform as Chapayekas but may not do so until they are adults. Other groups are the Caballeros (the cavalry) who start off siding with the Fariseos but then switch to the church group. The Matachines “own” the rest of the year and only appear at the end of Easter as part of restoring the “normal order.” The ritual begins in the community church on Ash Wednesday, expanding to other parts of the land over the next few weeks and concentrating again in the church area on Holy Week (for more detailed descriptions see Keisalo-Galvan 2011; Painter 1986).[107]

The Chapayeka performers must be mature, married men. Beyond this there are no expectations on their social position. During the ritual, all performers are expected to comport themselves in accordance to restrictions, such as abstaining from drinking and sexual relations. Some performers add to this their own personal mandas, such as fasting. Yaqui ritual requires hard work and a lot of discipline, but it is not seen as suffering or penance, and many performers spoke to me of how performing gives them energy and that they would not want to stop (see also Lutes 1983).

The Chapayeka masks portray a variety of beings that are other, such as foreigners, animals, mythological figures, and also characters from television and movies, like Chucky, the murderous doll from horror movies, Popeye, or Shrek.7 Each year the masks are made anew, as all but two masks are burned after the final battle on the Saturday of Glory, together with Judas in effigy, the Chapayekas’ weapons, and any leftover materials from making the masks. While the basic form of a helmet-like mask made from hide and covering of the entire head is constant, the cycle of destroying and remaking the masks changes the established types and admits new ones. For example, masks depicting circus clowns are now common, but according to an experienced Chapayeka performer they were first introduced in the early 1980s. Accounts of Chapayekas from the 1930s and 1940s describe “Hobos” (Painter 1986; E. Spicer 1980). During my fieldwork there were “cholos,” (“delinquents”) depicted as punks with Mohawk hairdos, their masks and wooden swords decorated with pictures of marijuana leaves. All the personages depicted in the Chapayeka masks must be male. All Chapayekas are powerful in some way, whether as “The Presidents of the United States,” evil figures like the devil or the vampire, trickster figures like Homer Simpson or the Pink Panther, or aggressive animals like the rooster or bull. Some are chaotic, others, like “The Sheriff,” are pointedly ordered. The first Chapayeka crawls out from under the church altar, weak at first and struggling to get up, slowly finding his strength, while the rest make their first entrance from outside the community fully prepared. As other Chapayekas gradually join the first one, their number and their power grow slowly over the following weeks. Certain reversals are a conventional part of the Chapayeka performance. They substitute left for right, backward for facing front, and do not speak but communicate in gestures. When passing objects to each other, they turn their backs on each other and give and receive using the left hand. They are curious and wary, carefully examining their surroundings, easily spooked by sudden noises. Employed by the Fariseos to hunt for Jesus, most of the time the Chapayekas are accompanied, assisted, and tenuously controlled by the Cabos. The ending of their performance and subsequent return to society are mediated by ritual godparents.

First example: Rambo on the phone

In 2007, a Chapayeka nicknamed Rambo because of a red bandana tied around his head carried a plastic toy mobile phone, which he used in a fairly elaborate bit of clowning during one of the many processions around the circular Konti way where [108]the stations of the cross were set up. Apparently an “Apache”8 type, Rambo was very active, often fooling around with the Circus Clown Chapayekas. He was always ready to participate in inventions, such as an impromptu parody of the Deer Dance (a sacred Yaqui tradition) put on by a group of Chapayekas, as well as creating bits of his own. Once he forced a young Cabo to give him a bottle of Coca-Cola, which Rambo pretended to drink and get very inebriated from, pirouetting and stumbling around, before slipping the still uncapped bottle back to the boy. More playful and reckless than aggressive or stern, Rambo quickly became popular among the children.

As a figure, a sign-that-refers-to-something-else, Rambo’s toy phone could mean a number of things. In terms of Peirce’s trilogy of signs it could be an index of technological development happening in the world around the unchanging ritual tradition, an icon of the Chapayekas’ transgressions of rules, or part of a symbolic representation of a person who does not know how to behave correctly during a ritual.9 All these figures take as their contextual ground both the ritual and the world around it, and the separating boundary between these. When used by a Chapayeka, the phone doesn’t make sense in relation to only the ritual or only the nonritual world. It also doesn’t make sense without the boundary between these, the idea that cell phones belong only in the nonritual world. This is an example of the Chapayeka expanding the ground of his performance through invention. Bringing in the phone-as-a-figure entails perspectives and references that reach out beyond the ritual-as-ground, without erasing the boundary between the ritual and contexts that are “other to it” (see Stasch 2011).

According to figure-ground theory, perception and thought focus on figures (“signs,” entities such as images, things, ideas, or parts of these), foregrounded against an undifferentiated unified ground (variously conceived of as “not-signs,” contexts or co-texts, the background). An important aspect of this view is “the fundamental asymmetry of the figure-ground relationship of focal event and its context,” which has also meant that figures have received “the lion’s share of analytic attention” (Goodwin and Duranti 1992: 10; see also Hanks 1992). However, figures and grounds are relative to each other, forming dialectical pairs. In Wagner’s model of meaning the reversibility of the figure-ground relation is crucial to processes of perception, thought, and expression. “A perception can be inverted with its perceptual ‘ground’” (Wagner 1986: 33). Figure-ground pairings are thus temporary and unstable. What is “a figure” and what counts as “ground” is dependent on culturally and socially informed perspectives and mutually coordinated semiotic action as a constant shifting and shuffling of figures and grounds. Figures are constantly emerging from and being subsumed again into grounds—one example being the use of hands and fingers to gesture, point, or talk in sign language. An important aspect of performative force of rituals and other performances is the way they can become a ground as a counterpoint to other grounds. In Bruce Kapferer’s (2004: 55) [109]discussion, the “virtual of rite” is a field of force that is different from but no less real than “actuality.” Figure-ground relations are also underdetermined and reversible because different figures rely on different grounds, and a specific perspective is always partial and predicated on socially transmitted semiotic repertoires.

Can Rambo’s phone be a ground for other figures? As it clearly does not belong in the conventions of the ritual, the phone is a metasemiotic index of the Chapayeka shifting to invention, but as an action, bringing out a phone is the shift, performative in that it is not a representation of a condition but a way to create and bring about that condition (Austin 1962). As a semiotic figuration, in addition to conventionally referencing things beyond the ritual, Rambo-on-the-phone is a possibly unique instance of invention. And so Rambo casually leans against a pickup truck parked by the side of the road and crosses his arms while pretending to talk, relaxed in his stance, focusing on his call but occasionally gesturing to the proceeding events (everything is done in silent mime but you can almost hear the “Yeah, I’m here at the procession. We just got to the 11th station—no, no, I’ve got time, I can talk . . .”). He glances around, fixes his gaze to pick out a boy from the crowd, nodding and apparently telling whoever or whatever is at the end of the line, “yes, yes, the kid is here.” Rambo tries to get the boy to speak on the phone, gesturing, “come here” and holding out the phone. When the embarrassed boy continues to silently refuse, Rambo gives up, snaps a picture of him with the phone, and pockets it.

The phone contradicted the ritual convention, both marking and constituting the shift to invention. As the invention continued, the phone was no longer the foregrounded figure, but was obviated, made part of the ground that made this little scene possible and intelligible. The concept of obviation has been used by Wagner (1986) to demonstrate how a myth or ritual proceeds from one metaphor to another: a metaphor is necessary to make a difference when first introduced but is then “exhausted” and rendered obvious to pave the way and make room for new metaphors. In shifting into invention, Rambo differentiated himself from the ritual convention. Effectively freeing himself from the limits of the ritual-as-ground and asserting himself as an active subject beyond his ritual role as a Chapayeka, he emerged as a symbol-that-stands-for-itself. “The tension and contrast between symbol and symbolization collapse, the symbol stands for itself” (Wagner 1981: 43). As an image, a Chapayeka called Rambo pretending to talk on the phone during a ritual procession makes semiotic sense, but it does not have a referent except for itself. The Chapayeka reinvented and obviated himself as an individual who happened to be talking on the phone. Then, by turning his attention to the boy, Rambo made him a figure in the story as well. The spectators, including the boy, follow this, and the boy is put on the spot and expected to respond. A shift in the invention/convention orientation of a Chapayeka can thus elicit a shift in the orientation of the spectators, changing their frames of reference and interpretation. In their conventional mode, the Chapayekas are part of the ritual as signs, easily seen as components, separable into performers, masks, the beings portrayed, et cetera. When a Chapayeka shifts into invention, he emerges as a figure against a ground that may go beyond the ritual. Through his capacity for invention, Rambo as an individual unified entity becomes a self-contained ground, a subject capable of producing intentional figures and engaging in interaction with other subjects.[110]

Rethinking semiotics through comedy

A semiotic model that selectively picks out and interprets meaningful signs within a taken-for-granted context of not-signs remains partial in a way that makes analyzing comedic figures and performances problematic—the model becomes short-circuited by the conflicting messages. As a result, while the interpretations may succeed in capturing one aspect of the comedic figures or performances, they end up leaving others unattended. Expanding the semiotic model to include grounds and figure-ground relations as well as figures provides a way to accommodate comedy. This means asking not only what the context is but also what kinds of signs and contexts there are, how signs affect perceptions of contexts, and how images can become grounds for further images. Semiosis requires the occasional “epistemological lie” that something provides an absolute ground to stand on, even if in the last analysis these grounds of our existence are more placeholders than permanent foundations (Wagner 1986: 24; see also 1981: 39). If more straightforward semiotic acts build on contextual grounds as more or less firm and taken-for-granted foundations, comedic performance tends to subvert and shift its grounds. Like many other comedic figures, the Chapayekas have a wider semiotic repertoire than the other, noncomedic, performers of the event they appear in, allowing them to transgress and transcend the boundaries and conventions of the ritual. While the specifics of Rambo-the-Chapayeka and his performance may be unpredictable, the unpredictability itself is expected. Thus, Rambo-on-the-phone is quickly obviated in the sense of being accepted as ground for further invention.

Previous anthropological approaches to comedic figures and performances have often based their interpretation on picking out the most important aspect—the (most) relevant signs—of the character or performance. The problem with these approaches is that while they may account for some aspect of the comedic performance, the inherent ambiguity of clowns and comedy tends to assert itself in a way that defies analyses that would reduce the subject to any one aspect. “Whatever predicate we use to describe [the clown], the opposite can also be said, and with equal right” (Zucker 1967: 308–9).

Yaqui expert Edward Spicer (1980: 81) saw the Chapayekas as representing “the worst kind of evil” due to their role as Judas, despite noting the ambiguity of their actions and the masks—which are not all considered evil. Even, say, the Vampire-Chapayeka’s frightful presence was somewhat compromised by the cute little stuffed toy bat he carried with him, as well as exaggerated Count Dracula–like movements such as dramatically pulling his cape up. In an unpublished article, Rosamond Spicer considered the Chapayekas as a steam-valve-like release from the tensions of the ritual.10 However, the Chapayekas themselves are a considerable source of tension, even while clowning, as my next example will illustrate. Richard Schechner (1997) has suggested that the Chapayekas represent conflicting sides of Yaqui identity, grappling with the problem of being “both Yaqui and Catholic.” Yet [111]the only expressions of there being any conflict between “Catholic” and “indigenous Yaqui” that I have ever heard of have come from non-Yaqui outsiders. In any case, how would Homer Simpson or Rambo’s phone as specific figures fit into this? I will come back to the masks and otherness in the third example.

It is often claimed that humor offers criticism or social commentary through portraying and indirectly condemning inappropriate behavior (e.g., Basso 1979; Course 2013; Mitchell 1992). If the idea of the Chapayekas as portraying inappropriate behavior when they ignore the ritual proceedings to do something else is somewhat plausible, at times they also model correct behavior, like the time they tried to get spectators to start cleaning up the debris scattered on the church plaza. “Clowning as critique” often ignores the ambiguous and self-contradictory aspects—not to mention the fun—of clowning, thus leaving the question of why clowning is used in the first place to convey the message. While others aim to define the (serious) meanings and functions of clowns and clowning, some approaches focus on their creativity and ambiguity. These authors argue that comedic beings reveal the arbitrary, constructed nature of structures or offer the possibility of new meanings or access to a “higher truth” (e.g., Babcock 1975, 1984; Bakhtin 1984). The “motley assemblage” (Babcock 1984) itself is taken as the relevant sign, and the ambiguity and incongruity of the comedic, the clown, and the carnevalistic is celebrated. But these views that revel in the invention and creativity do not sufficiently account for the systematic cultural and social aspects of performance. Recent critiques of “the global postmodern trickster” also point out that these characters have specific meaning in the social and cultural contexts they are embedded in, and argue for recognizing the ways tricksters are indeed linked to specific truths, rather than being “beyond truth” (e.g., Sinclair 2010).

In the former analyses concerned with finding a serious meaning, whatever is not selected as the relevant sign(s) to be explicitly explained by the analysis—whether Rambo pretending to speak on his cell phone or the Roman soldiers bringing Jesus to be crucified—is relegated to the background, either unclear or obvious in what it represents and therefore unclear or unimportant in its motivation. The latter analyses that celebrate the ambiguity and creativity are less concerned with the signs’ referential meaning, but this view runs the risk of presenting comedic figures as perpetually “floating signifiers” (Lévi-Strauss 1987: 63–64), open to just about any meaning. While the potential to float is indeed a part of the technique and relative autonomy of the comedic figure, if they can mean anything and everything, they end up meaning nothing. The next example will illustrate the necessity of considering the relations between invention and convention.

Second example: Chapayeka empathy

On Maundy Thursday, Jesus is caught. This day includes the Last Supper, where Jesus is represented by a young man, eating traditional Yaqui foods with the church group, while the Chapayekas come up in pairs to examine the scene and ascertain it really is Him. Later there is the moment of capture and the “running of the viejito” where Jesus breaks away and runs, the Fariseos in pursuit while the church group forms a defense. But first, there are several Chapayeka relays, starting early in the [112]morning. Chapayekas, accompanied by Cabos, stand at the stations of the cross and take turns passing a wooden object that makes a clapping sound when twirled back and forth. The relays offer many possibilities to clown by finding different ways to pass the clapper. One Chapayeka refused to move until he was “cranked up to go” by the previous one. Another one, instead of proceeding toward the next station, reversed direction to follow the previous Chapayeka back toward his station. On realizing this, the returning Chapayeka took the other one by the shoulders, turned him around slowly, then gave him a sudden hard shove in the right direction.

For the children, the relays provided a chance to watch the clowning and interact with the Chapayekas: there were no Fariseo officers, members of other ceremonial groups, or even many parents around to scold them, only the low-ranking young Cabos and the nerdy anthropologist taking notes. The braver kids would try to sneak up to the Chapayekas without getting caught, while other children observed with varying degrees of excitement and fear. As I watched, two little girls wondered aloud what would happen if a child were caught. They discussed plans to get the mother of one of the girls. They asked me what I thought would happen and told me that since I was an adult, I would not be scared. When a Chapayeka came near they hid behind me and giggled as I made the joke commonly made by adults of offering children to the Chapayekas, saying, “here, take them!”

Then a boy who was maybe eleven or twelve years old (who had been very brave and cocky up until now) was caught by the Chapayekas. As he lay on the ground, several Chapayekas slowly crowded around, tense and menacing, one of them holding up a spray can, threatening to spray the boy’s face. The boy lost his nerve and began to cry. At this, the Chapayekas paused for a moment and then began to clumsily comfort him, patting and stroking the boy. This made the boy cry even louder, inspiring one of the Chapayekas to pick the boy up in his arms and rock him like a baby. The boy continued to sob, perhaps now from humiliation and confusion as well as fear. Soon the Chapayeka carried him to the side, put him down and left.

This brief interaction between the Chapayekas and the boy involved several shifts and reversals as the involved subjects reacted to each other. For the children, the threat posed by the Chapayekas is necessary for the game, but when the boy was caught and surrounded, the threat became overwhelming. When the Chapayekas began to comfort the boy, from his view they were still threatening. The Chapayekas, however, presented a more noticeable shift, as well as coordination of action between the several Chapayekas involved in the moment. When they first caught the boy, they were clearly menacing. When the boy started to cry, the Chapayekas’ reaction indicated they were now—on a surface level—trying to convince the boy not to be afraid. Here the comforting and the Chapayekas form a contradictory figure-ground pairing: the Chapayekas-as-ground are dangerous and thus the comforting-as-figure makes no sense. On the other hand, the comforting-as-ground presents the Chapayekas-as-figure that goes against the conventional idea of the Chapayekas. Thus the image of the Chapayekas comforting the boy remains incongruent: there is no resolution as the related figures and grounds refuse to make sense of each other. I felt a sense of both relief and renewed tension in watching the scene, and I suspect other spectators shared these feelings. The Chapayekas had several options available to them: keep menacing the boy, leave him alone, or [113]even stop being Chapayekas by taking off the masks, reverting to the familiar humans underneath. As an improvised-in-the-moment-choice, comforting the boy provided a solution that actually allowed them to remain unpredictable and thus powerful on a deeper level than trying to act menacing in some more obvious way.

Contexts and images; convention and invention

The conventional signs of the Yaqui Easter work like signs are expected to by much of semiotic theory: they refer to something else, such as previous performances of the ritual, abstract cosmological ideas, and biblical narratives. In the conventional mode of performance the semiotic repertoire is narrowed and focused so that certain things are foregrounded as figures and the rest is obviated into the background, important only in terms of the conventional figure. If a conventionalizing performer in the Yaqui Easter walks in a particular way, this is unimportant unless notably inappropriate in terms of the ritual. For example, if a person is too slow, he or she may be told to speed up, so as to properly follow the convention. However, a Chapayeka walking too slowly may very well be doing it with an expressive intention; in the semiotic ideology of the Yaqui Easter ritual everything the Chapayekas do is a potential figure. While the other performers act as object-like referential signs in the ritual, the Chapayekas’ capacity for invention also makes them potential subjects and expands the Chapayekas’ agency: actions inspired by their individual orientations and subjective perspectives have semiotic consequences. As seen in the two previous examples, Chapayekas can shift and reverse both their own and, along with it, the spectators’ orientations and perspectives.

Performing the Yaqui Easter ritual (as the total event) can be seen as a figure-ground reversal in itself. The ritual is a symbolic figuration, which in its enactment becomes a self-contained reality, a ground. It constitutes a move from the varied forms and practices of everyday life, where cosmology and ritual tradition may be more in the background, into a period where the religious symbols are foregrounded. While Jesus and the Virgin Mary can be present in different ways in people’s lives throughout the rest of the year, for this period they are publicly active and visible. The ritual is a shift into a different way of acting and being for all the performers and entails a respect for certain rules from all participants. The conventional aspect of the Yaqui Easter ritual sets it apart in time, space, and semiotic ideology as a bounded entity.

The Chapayeka performance begins in convention every time: the decisive moment is putting on the mask, which must be done according to certain rules, crouching or lying down. Once the mask is on, the Chapayeka stands up and gives his belt rattles a shake; the transformation is complete, the performer is obviated and the Chapayeka/mask becomes figure and ground. The Chapayeka performer without his mask is focused, quiet, and subdued in comparison to the Chapayeka character that emerges when the mask is donned. The Chapayeka mask is a uniquely powerful and dangerous object in Yaqui ritual (Keisalo-Galvan 2011; Painter 1986). The performer has to follow certain rules to protect both himself and the mask, which must not be photographed, stared at, or touched by the uninitiated. The performer and mask work together but are kept separate: the performer [114]keeps the cross of a Yaqui rosary in his mouth while wearing the mask as part of maintaining the boundary between the man and the mask. If the performer makes a mistake, such as speaking while wearing the mask, this boundary may be compromised; the worst-case scenario is that the mask becomes attached to his face, turning the man into a Chapayeka ghost doomed to walk the way of the cross for eternity. One performer told me he once looked at a pretty girl while wearing the mask and felt a sharp pain on his face—the mask was reminding him to keep his mind on the ritual. Although dangerous, the masks are not simply evil: if the performer treats the mask carefully and with respect, it will guide and help him through the ritual.

The invention in Chapayeka performance can happen in several different ways, enacting different relations to convention. Defining something as invention or convention depends on the perspective, the perceived figure-ground relation: a specific Chapayeka mask may be an invention in relation to the Chapayeka mask as a general object, but it is also a conventional context for performed inventions. The mask type affects the sorts of improvisations the Chapayeka might engage in. For instance, it is conventional for those with animal masks to act like the animal and be treated as such. The Chapayeka with a Charro (Mexican horseman) mask was especially interested in the Horse; the Chapayekas would occasionally pet the Dog. The Ape hung from tree branches, and the Rooster approached a food vendor’s cart to peer at the corn on the cob. The Chapayekas interact extensively with spectators, other performers, and each other, reacting to the moment. They may steal things from people who are not careful, mimic and mock them, or jump onto the back of a passing bicycle. The Chapayekas cut imposing and somewhat frightening figures, which also makes their shifts into silliness that more striking. Generally, the smaller children feared the Chapayekas, older children were openly excited, and older teens and adults were often amused but always respectful.

The Chapayekas may disrupt the conventional process of the ritual to do something else, such as the Chapayeka with a Circus Clown mask who took out a red yo-yo and stopped to play with it in church, while his companion, another Clown, indicated with growing impatience that they should get on with the present task of searching for Jesus. Stopping in itself interrupts the process of the ritual events, while the yo-yo, as an element that conventionally belongs in other semiotic orders, interrupts the ritual as a meaningful space. Although inventions are more likely to happen at certain moments or to be the work of certain Chapayekas, there are no fixed moments of when it must happen (and some Chapayekas only perform the conventional forms, or depart from them very little) but the possibility is always there. The unpredictability of the Chapayekas means that all participants need to be aware of the possibility of shifts. Not noticing runs its own risks of becoming an unaware butt of a joke, like the thieved-from spray-can vendor, whose obliviousness greatly added to the spectators’ amusement. The very fact of being unpredictable, not completely controlled by or contained in the ritual’s conventional form, makes the Chapayeka a powerful figure on different semiotic levels. The ability to shift into invention means that the Chapayekas can cross the boundary that the conventionalizing action has drawn around the ritual. In their masks depicting Pink Panthers and Canadian Pensioners, actions such as examining a municipal police car, and props like toy phones and plastic bags for sniffing glue carried by [115]the punks, the Chapayekas do not just represent otherness belonging in the world-outside-the-ritual, they bring it in with them.

Third example: Chucky/Chapayeka

In addition to performed figure-ground reversals, there is a reversible figure-ground relation between the specific being portrayed in a mask and the Chapayeka as a general type. Each Chapayeka presents a doubled image in a similar way that pictures may present optical illusions and contain different images, like the duck-rabbit illusion, or some of Salvador Dalí’s paintings. The mask type called “Orejona” (“big-eared”) is considered traditional, referencing the Chapayekas as a category, and Judas and the Roman soldiers. In this sense, the Orejonas are closer to the conventional pole of the Chapayeka masks. Every Chapayeka mask used in ritual is conventional in at least the basic form and material, and inventive in having been made specifically for that year’s performance. It may also be conventional/inventive in relation to a mask-type, such as the “Orejonas,” “Animals,” or “Circus Clowns.” All the Chapayekas I have seen and heard of have some preexisting model or reference in a semiotic order other to the ritual; like playing with yo-yos or talking on a phone, what is conventional elsewhere becomes invention when brought into the ritual.

During my fieldwork, one of the masks depicted Chucky, the evil doll featured in a series of horror movies (the Child’s Play franchise). Unlike Rambo’s performance, Chucky’s performance did not involve very much invention. In addition to performing the conventional forms, his signature move was to occasionally lunge at children, menacing them with his wooden knife painted to look like the bloodied kitchen knife carried by the doll in the movies. As a figure, Chucky/Chapayeka has two grounds: The Yaqui Easter ritual and its associated contexts on the one hand, and the horror movies and their associated contexts on the other. Like a Chapayeka reaching beyond the boundary of the ritual through performance, this incongruent pairing may create a sense of looming chaos, threatening to collapse boundaries between contexts and categories. At the same time, Chucky/Chapayeka is a potential ground that evokes various possible figures, such as ideas of the silliness of the Chucky movies, or the evilness of the Chapayekas.

These are different figures and grounds than those evoked by other Chapayekas, like the Orejona, the Pink Panther, or Rambo the Apache. Each mask is related to different grounding contexts, and capable of evoking and producing various figures, but the Chapayekas—as a group or as individual figures—are not reducible to any one of these. The portrayed beings, masks, and mask types embody dialectics of convention and invention in the year-to-year tradition and in the doubled image of a single mask. The doubled images and introducing new beings through the cycles of making and remaking the masks are also among the semiotic techniques of setting up and maintaining convention and invention in mutual opposition. This means Chucky is more arbitrary than the Chapayeka: the Yaqui Easter ritual in its present form needs Chapayekas but not Chucky specifically. The Chapayekas need beings to portray that are other to the ritual and have suitable ties to other grounds, and Chucky is one option discovered and chosen from the possible array [116]of powerful, male, other beings. The open possibility of a relatively arbitrary choice is an important aspect of tapping and channeling the unsettling powers of invention, unpredictability, and otherness. The potential for invention in the masks is an important part of the renewal and reinvention of the Chapayekas as a counterpoint to Jesus in the cycles of death and rebirth. Evoking Chucky gives this particular Chapayeka a specific source of power, while the possibility of invention in the masks is an aspect of the Chapayekas’ general power.

An affinity with otherness has been suggested as a general trait of ritual clowns. Keith Basso’s (1979) classic work finds Apache clowning to be a critique of “white” ways of being and acting. Course (2013) finds that for the Mapuche, the affinity with clowns and whiteness becomes a form of self-critique in a situation where urban migrants “become white.” While otherness is a very important aspect of the Chapayekas, it extends far beyond “white people” and as my third example shows, the potential meanings and efficacies of otherness and the particular masks depend on the perspective—what is figure and what is ground.

Conclusions: Chapayeka power

In a sense every sign—whether comedic or not—can be seen as both standing for something else, a way point of reference in the flow of meaning, and standing-for-itself as a potential ground. Convention provides a sort of established baseline of relevant figures and grounds and how they are related to each other. Invention creates new figures and new grounds but the real efficacy is in manipulating the figure-ground relations, determining which figures are defined against what grounds. The way comedic performance plays on patternings of invention and convention constitutes a potentially very powerful semiotic technique of manipulating figure-ground relations. Through three examples, I have shown how Chapayekas emerge as symbols-that-stand-for-themselves through shifting from convention to invention, allowing them to transcend the boundaries of the ritual. As ritual clowns they have the ability to be both figures and grounds; they enact and become self-contained figure-ground reversals through embodied and performed incongruity and ambiguity.

As a unique figure, the Chapayeka is one of the defining features of the Yaqui Easter ritual. Together the two form a reversible figure-ground pair: each makes sense of and defines the other, yet the invention of the Chapayekas also opposes them to the ritual convention. However, the invention of the Chapayekas and their ability to mediate the boundary of the ritual contributes to maintaining the ritual-as-convention so that it can be—successfully, efficaciously—repeated and reinvented each year. The clowning, the reversible reversals into invention and back to convention within the Yaqui Easter ritual, is a part of the efficacy and power of the total ritual. By going against the form and threatening the conventional, maintaining and enhancing their power through shifts into invention, the Chapayekas in their conventional mode elicit a more powerful response from their adversaries and counterparts, Jesus and the church group, and thus motivate the continuity of the ritual. As part of the yearly ritual cycle, the figure-ground reversals into Lent and Easter and back to “normal” allow cosmological grounds to be [117]semiotically engaged. Social and cultural contexts are accessed or influenced by representing them as (always partial) figures, but they have power and efficacy when established as grounds. Thus figure-ground reversals into, out of, and within performance are an essential part of the dynamics of creating social realities as grounds of existence. The Yaqui Easter ritual evokes and obviates a number of time-place realities, bringing together and taking apart biblical time, the Yaqui village, and the surrounding state in a coordinated series that ultimately presents a cosmological metaphor where the powers have been renewed through the dynamics of performance.

Paying attention to grounds as well as figures, and adding symbols-that-stand-for-themselves as a counterpoint to signs-that-point-to-something-else to the analytic toolkit creates an amplified semiotics better able to cope with paradoxical and ambiguous expressions and forms that more limited semiotic analyses have struggled with. This approach also offers insights on any semiotic process, how performances can create, support, and question conventions as power structures with social consequences. Detailed ethnographic analysis of semiotic action as the creation of both figures and grounds and the evoking of figure-ground relations can help demonstrate the “world-making” capacity of performances, going beyond reductive analyses that would see ritual or other performances as “nonreal portrayal of preexisting real entities” (Stasch 2011: 163). A performance’s force is in part created by the way it becomes a ground of being. Like Kapferer’s (2004) “virtuality” or Don Handelman’s (1990) “modeling” events, the situation becomes, in some way, real on its own terms; it acts as a ground that is relative, but not reducible or subordinate to other possible grounds.


I would like to thank the editors and the anonymous reviewers for their comments. I also thank Harri Siikala for commenting on various drafts of this paper.


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Renversements réversibles: Figures et fonds mouvants dans la performance des clowns rituels Chapayeka

Résumé : Cet article développe une analyse des performances comiques à partir des performances des clowns rituels Chapayeka comme une série d’inversions sémiotiques: les Chapayekas jouent avec les images et les contextes, ils introduisent d’imprévisibles figures pour décaler ou bouleverser ce qui forme la precondition de leur propre performance. La performance Chapayeka associe des formes conventionnelles et fixes à des formes nouvelles, inventées. Tandis qu’ils alternent convention et invention (au sens de Roy Wagner), les Chapayekas se dégagent comme des “symboles se signifiant eux-mêmes.” Ceci permet aux Chapayekas de tenir lieu, durant le rite, de figures symboliques et de fondement contextuel auto-suffisant, ce qui leur permet de produire des signes et de manipuler le rapport traditionnel entre fond et figure durant et au-delà du rituel. La perspective analytique qui est développée ici est attentive a la sémiotique complexe et multidimensionnelle de la performance comique; cette exploration offre une perspective nouvelle sur la façon dont les performances comiques créent et disposent d’une force sémiotique qui se fonde sur la capacité a générer un nouveau fond en évoquant la relation fond-figure.

Marianna KEISALO is a postdoctoral researcher at Aarhus University in the project “Digressions: A cross-disciplinary study of the indirectness of the human imagination.” She received her PhD at the University of Helsinki in 2011. She has [121]conducted ethnographic fieldwork with the Yaquis in Mexico and stand-up comedians in Finland.

Marianna Keisalo
Aarhus University
School of Culture and Society
Department of Anthropology
Moesgaard Allé 20
8270 Højbjerg


1. The material comes from three periods of fieldwork in 2004, 2006, and 2007 (Keisalo-Galvan 2011).

2. How something becomes “funny” is a complex question I intend to discuss further in forthcoming work. In this case I am taking at face value that the performances were considered as funny by those present at the time. People (including Chapayeka performers) told me repeatedly they thought the Chapayekas are funny, told anecdotes of particular moments and masks, and smiled, chuckled, or exclaimed while watching the performances.

3. For a comparative analysis of stand-up comedy, see Keisalo 2014, Keisalo forthcoming.

4. For more general looks at humor, see Apte 1985; Douglas 1968; Oring 2003; Raskin 2008; Sciama 2016; Sherzer 2002.

5. However, the details of performance may be very important for personal reasons (see Keisalo-Galvan 2011; Painter 1986; Lutes 1983).

6. The first detailed descriptions come from Arizona in the 1930s (see Painter 1986; E. Spicer 1940, 1980).

7. Choosing the mask is a combination of conventional rules and individual taste. Once a mask is chosen, the performer must make the same type for three years before changing.

8. The ones called Apaches are a sort of exaggerated, other, “Indian” type, often wearing feathered head-dresses and carrying bows and arrows.

9. Taking pictures during ritual while the Chapayekas are present is strictly prohibited and may result in losing one’s camera or phone and being told to leave.

10. The problems of the functionalist explanation of clowns as steam valves have been discussed (e.g., Handelman 1990), however, see Barbara Tedlock (1975) for ethnographically specific meanings and effects of “release from worry” through clown performances.